Using the key from the key safe I let myself into the hallway. A steep flight of stairs rises up in front of me; Angela is waiting at the top. I wave, introduce myself.
‘I’ll put my mask and things on in the hall,’ I tell her.
‘That’s right,’ she says. ‘The other nurse did that.’
Angela watches me carefully as I tie on the apron and mask. She’s propped up on an elbow crutch, the light from the maisonette kitchen a bright halo of white around her. Her glasses are enormous – great pale circles – accentuated by her bouffant hair and red lips. It’s like being scrutinised by a species of giant domestic fowl.
‘All done? Good! Into the living room…’
Despite the crutch and her advanced age she vaults the second set of stairs and is well-ahead of me by the time I reach the top.
‘Let’s sit at the table in the window,’ she says. ‘You there, me here.’
I’m already sweating. The room has a close, two-dimensional feel, like the set of a sitcom. Every time I say something I expect to hear canned laughter – except, I don’t get much opportunity, as Angela has all the lines, limiting me to a few nods and uh-hums. In fact, she’s so chatty I have to talk over her to ask a question, apologising for my interruption each time.
I’ve been sent round on a mission to get some clarity. Angela had been referred to us recently for care support and a little physio, but the therapist who did the initial assessment found that actually there was nothing for us to do, and with Angela’s agreement, ended the referral. But then Angela had rung the office to ask where all the help was. It had proved too difficult to figure things out on the phone – for reasons that are now becoming clear – so I was asked to attend.
‘Apologies for being déshabillé. You wouldn’t normally find me waltzing around in a dressing gown at half past ten in the morning,’ she says. ‘But everything’s been so muddled lately. I have this condition you see. Not exactly narcolepsy, but near as damn. Chronic Fatigue syndrome? There are lots of names for it, but it’s really neither here nor there. Take last night, for example. I read through the paper and decided what I wanted to watch. A documentary. On whales. And I settled down in my chair – which isn’t nearly as comfortable as you might think – and I turned on the television set to enjoy it. Well – you see – the next thing I know I’m opening my eyes and it’s half past four in the morning! And I wasn’t just awake, but absolutely and completely awake! So I got up, made myself something to eat, and then sat here at this table, and decided to do the crossword. I had just opened the dictionary to look up a word – I can’t remember which one – but that doesn’t matter – the point is, the next thing I knew, I was opening my eyes again and it was nine o’clock! I’d simply put my head on the dictionary and pfft! The lights had gone out! Well of course this isn’t at all unusual for me. This has happened quite a bit. The doctors are flummoxed. They’ve run all kinds of tests and things but nothing seems to stick….’
I can feel my eyes becoming heavy, too. In fact, I can’t think of anything better than putting my head down on the dictionary and snatching a few hours myself.
‘…I was always a bit of a live wire,’ she says, then stares at me. I’m worried for a second I might have had a microsleep and started snoring, but the moment passes.
‘What did you do before you retired?’ I manage to say, pathetically.
‘Private secretary,’ she says, with a proud snap of her jaws. ‘To an extremely high-profile businessman.’ She taps her nose and winks at me.
‘Goodness,’ I say.
‘Yes. It was a different time altogether. I was on the go from dawn to dusk. Angela! my friends would say to me. Angela! What’s your secret?’
‘And what was the secret?’
‘Oh – the usual! A steady nerve, a cool hand and sturdy boots.’